Go to home Aspen Amplifiers Go to home
products FAQs discussion buying contact













Democracy, Religion and HiFi

Perhaps at the risk of eternal damnation, I thought I'd offer a few thoughts on our great love in life, the 'Good Sound'. But first a few words of introduction, on psycho-acoustics, of all things.

Just what is psycho-acoustics and why is it important? It is the study of sound, and its associated human processing - musical perception. We might more subjectively call this listening. But whatever it is, the business of sound perception is often quite a contrary phenomenon; it is mixed up with belief, environment, and what we nebulously call 'taste'. A human being gravitates towards a particular musical genre - we have many categories in our club - and these categories form subsets of the greater world of enjoyment we call 'music'. The interesting thing is that we frequently tend to curse those strawberries and dislike those oranges - we unconsciously display musical prejudice and over time this can become something of a religion.

I like rock 'n roll. I also like the romantic classics, and I love some modern jazz. But I dislike rap, and I'm not too keen on opera either, although I love intermezzo. When discussing these other genres, my face screws up, and I look quite uncomfortable. You'd think I really didn't think much of those who actually like this stuff...
Enter musical racism. There are no laws against this one, but it is highly pervasive, and can even kill otherwise pleasant musical conversations stone dead. I confess to some alarm when a sensitive lover of classical music reveals, in a moment of naive trust and frightening philistinism, an enjoyment of heavy metal. Inwardly I ask myself all sorts of questions relating to the perversity of human taste and the complete inappropriateness of some people as they claw their way through musical culture. Oh dear, there I go again...

Music, often described as the universal language (a statement I suspect is flawed), has the interesting power to evoke images, feelings - and prejudices. It seems to tickle the associative centres of the human brain and call forth remembrances of things past; a lovely walk on a spring day, a first kiss, a beautiful meal in a special place, an exciting holiday. Significantly, this intense experience is best when the subject listens but does not see; the visual spectacle seems to dull the auditory experience. Even hardened audiophiles would confess to favourite pieces which continue to evoke marvellous feelings - despite routinely listening for the 'realism' of that snare drum at the end of bar four and coolly appraising the anguish in that female vocal. I still love Eric Clapton's "Old Love", even though I abuse it as a 'test piece'. Notably, this power of association is unique to the individual even though we all hear the same sound. But we certainly don't hear the same music. In truth, we all march to different drums, and therein lies the rub.

The perception of music is one very strange thing. A good friend just loves Bartok. I think it is cacophonous nonsense. I adore Sibelius; he thinks it is derivative schmaltz. My mother goes into raptures listening to Dame Joan Sutherland; I think her singing, though interesting (I'd better be careful here!) is unmusical. I believe there is something cosmic about the Bach Double Violin Concerto; my children positively hate it and would far sooner listen to Lighthouse. And my wife enjoys country and western. The danger here is that we become musically intolerant, and slate the 'opposition'.
While musical perception is something all human beings enjoy (and suffer!) we audiophiles have an additional prejudice to contend with. Just love Krells? Adore the ARC amps? Really hate those execrable sand amplifiers? Think push-pull is passé? SET rules, OK? Digital is just horrible; vinyl is infinitely superior. DON'T LIKE HORNS. Won't listen to anything less efficient than 98dB/watt/metre. Boy, do I dig Lowthers...

I believe it is both logical and desirable to foster a wide variety of hifi equipment just as we enjoy an incredible range of choices in recorded music. In truth, a hifi is a system, and all systems - including the organic machines we call people - have synergies, which make them better at some things than others. So it is that horn speakers, which sound pretty average with solid state amplifiers (my opinion, folks!), often shine with Single Ended Triodes. And direct radiating speakers, for all their inefficiency, can sound absolutely sensational with - yes, you guessed it - sand amplifiers. It really depends on the system, and much depends on where you choose to place your head, metaphorically as well as literally.

There has been considerable debate in these pages over the years about 'which system sounds better'. I believe there are four variables here; first, and most obviously, the system. Second, the material being played. Third, the room environment. And fourth, the musical and audiophile preferences (a polite word!) of the listeners. This last is the religious dimension, and perhaps the one deserving of most attention. It is characteristic of the beast that matters of belief cause the most bloodshed, and amongst all compulsive- obsessives religion can cause considerable ructions.

There really are no categorical statements; there are merely preferences, and these are judiciously mixed with engineering - which tries very hard to be objective. And somewhere in all this lies the unnerving statement from JC Morrison, a gifted audiophile guru in Hoboken, NY with a background in psychology, that '...in hifi there are levels. Welcome to the next level.'

Hugh Dean

© Copyright Hugh R. Dean 1999
All rights reserved